Livin' on the Dock of the Bay

From the Beats to CEOs, the residents of Sausalito’s houseboat community cherish their history and their neighbors

Today, 245 floating homes nose into the five docks at Sausalito's Waldo Point Harbor. (Panoramic Images / Getty Images)

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Not all the creatures are as benign. At low tide raccoons can invade houseboats through open windows, causing culinary mayhem. And in the summer of 1986, Richardson Bay residents were bedeviled by an eerie thrumming that sounded like a Russian sub, or an alien spaceship. A marine biologist was called in. He discovered that the noise came from creatures called humming toadfish, which attached themselves to the hulls during mating season. (Instead of fighting the creatures, the community named an annual festival after them.)

What else goes wrong? Well, the parking lots still flood at high tide. And carrying a load of groceries between car and boat is no fun in the driving rain.

Sometimes, just the notion of a “floating home” is enough to panic newcomers. Henry and Renée Baer have lived on the “Train Wreck,” one of the most remarkable dwellings on the Sausalito docks, since 1993. Built by architect Keith Emons around the bisected carriage of a 1900 Pullman car, it’s a masterpiece—and a monumental investment.

“In the early days, every time we came back from a trip I would run up the dock in a panic,” Renée confessed, “until I could see our roof. Then I’d breath a sigh of relief, because I knew it was still there. It hadn’t sunk, or floated out to sea, with all my clothes and everything gone.”

Realistically, though, houseboat owners have fewer natural catastrophes to contend with than their friends in San Francisco or the Oakland Hills.

“We don’t care about earthquakes here,” Stewart Brand pointed out as we shared lunch aboard Mirene. “Or wildfire. We don’t even care about sea level rise very much…yet.” (Of all the houseboats, I learned, Mirene is the only seaworthy vessel. The docks are more like a trailer park than an RV campground, with most of the houseboats encased in concrete hulls. It’s a Faustian bargain: They’re protected from rot and ocean organisms at the price of immobility.)

“And I was surprised to discover,” he continued, “that the absence of trees is not a bug, its a feature. Leaves do not fall on your deck. Trees do not fall on you. And if you want to see the sun, its always there.”

South 40, “A” Dock and Liberty; Main and Issaquah; each of the five-plus Waldo Point docks feels like a tribal settlement, with bloodlines extending across the waterfront. All have a distinct personality and a clannish pride. Some are known for their lush plantings, others for their oddball sculptures, cocktail parties, feral cats, or flights of architecture.

South 40, where I spent several stormy nights, won my fealty. It hosts some of the quirkiest houseboats, including the majestic old Owl, the Train Wreck, the Becky Thatcher and the Ameer, the only original 19th-century ark still afloat on Richardson Bay (and the former home of beloved Sausalito writer and cartoonist Phil Frank).

Though every dock is different, together they’re a subculture. It’s not easy to categorize the people who gravitate toward houseboats—but fascination with the ever-changing marine environment is a common denominator.

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